Marine Le Pen is the latest fascist to be called a “Right Wing Populist” by the corporate media.
There is no such thing.
Let’s be clear: Populists are leftists. We support human rights, social democracy, peace and ecological sanity.
“Populists of the Right” are fascists. Their goal has a clear definition, as put forward by the term’s originator, Benito Mussolini: “Corporate control of the state.”
When they take power, they become National Socialists, using the government to enrich the corporations and the rich, rather than Democratic Socialists, or social democrats, using the state to serve the people.
Fascists support enriching the rich and to hell with the rest of us. They are racist, misogynist, anti-ecological, militaristic and authoritarian. They hate democracy, freedom of speech and an open media. They take power by fomenting hate and division. Le Pen, now in in the runoff for the leadership of France, is a classic fascist, as is her American counterpart, Donald Trump.
The term “populist” has a clear historical origin in the United States. It’s important we claim it.
Populist was the name taken by radical farmers in the late 1800s who fought for social and economic justice against the robber baron elite. The Morgans, Rockefellers and their ilk had captured the industrial revolution that dominated the U.S. after the Civil War.
The farmers of the South and West fought back with a grass-roots social movement. They formed the People’s Party. Its socialistic platforms demanded public ownership of the major financial institutions, including banks, railways, power utilities and other private monopolies that were crushing the public well-being.
At their national conventions in Omaha in 1892, and St. Louis in 1896, and elsewhere, they demanded an end to corporate and foreign ownership of land. They wanted a national currency based on food rather than gold and silver. They endorsed universal affordable medical care, free public education and a general guarantee of the basics of life for all humans. They demanded equal rights for women, including the vote.
They also preached racial unity, especially among black and white farmers in the South, and between native and immigrant workers in the cities.
In the political quagmire of the Gilded Age, the Populists had three huge barriers to overcome.
Their power depended first on uniting white farmers in the South and West. But many had fought each other in the Civil War. So in 1892 the party nominated for president James B. Weaver of Iowa, a former general in the Union Army. His running mate was James G. Field of Virginia, once a Confederate officer and attorney general of Virginia.
The party also had to unite the races in the South. For centuries whites had been at the throats of black slaves, and then of impoverished freedmen and women. But almost miraculously the Populists managed by the 1890s to form significant alliances between the races. A critical pioneer was Tom Watson, a Georgia lawyer the Populists chose for vice president in 1896.
The People’s Party also had to ally its primarily rural constituency with the largely immigrant working class masses of the cities. For that a radical faction wanted to nominate for president in 1896 the great Indiana labor leader Eugene V. Debs, who was imprisoned for leading a national rail strike the previous year.
But tragedy struck in the form of Congressman William Jennings Bryan. A young, 36-year-old Nebraska Democrat, Bryan adopted populist rhetoric and captured the Democratic nomination, pledging to coin silver, an inflationary move that would raise food prices and lower the real cost of mortgages.
Raised an evangelical, Bryan was a spellbinding speaker who convinced the western farmers he would bring real change. With catastrophic consequences, he got a bitterly divided 1896 Populist Convention to endorse him. Debs, who was in jail at the time, also backed Bryan, a move he later deeply regretted.
Bryan then stabbed them all in the back. He took a Maine banker for his vice president. He pointedly ignored the Populist Watson and the party’s humanist platform. And he proceeded to lose the general election to Ohio’s very corporate Senator William McKinley, a robber baron puppet. As president, McKinley promptly birthed the modern American empire with the annexation of Hawaii and a Spanish-American War that conquered Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines.
In the wake of betrayal and defeat, the Populist Party collapsed. The Westerners and the Southerners parted company. The southern whites, including Watson, turned on the blacks, blaming them for the 1896 defeat.
Historians often cite venal Southerners like “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman as being racist populists. But Tillman and his ilk were always Democrats, and—like Bryan—had never embraced the Populists’ programs for peace and social justice.
Debs went on to lead the Socialist Party, running for president five times. His last campaign came from his federal cell in Atlanta because another Democrat, Woodrow Wilson, had him imprisoned for opposing America’s entry into World War I.
A hero to ensuing generations of social democrats, including Bernie Sanders, Debs knew the difference between populists of the left and fascists of the right.
While devious Democrats like Bryan and Wilson filched populist rhetoric, they fought the core People’s Party beliefs in social justice and economic equality. Wilson was a vicious racist who used imperial war to crush America’s Socialist Party.
And today’s “Populists of the Right,” i.e., fascists, take it even further. They cynically spew snippets of grass-roots rhetoric to attract a working-class constituency. But they violently oppose the rights of the working class, as well as those committed to social justice, economic equality, peace and ecology.
The fascists’ divide-and-conquer scapegoating embodies the precise opposite of real populism. Their small-minded meanness of spirit and blatant greed contradict everything the People’s and Socialist Parties stood for.
Led now by France’s Le Pen, America’s Trump and so many others, the core corporate values of Kleptocracy, war mongering, racism, misogyny, homophobia and ecological contempt can be seen in sibling reactionaries throughout Europe, in Russia’s Putin, in the Philippines’ murderous Duterte and among countless corporate dictators in developing nations.
There is nothing “populist” about these thugs and thieves except the media’s use of the term to describe them.
The “F” word applies. It is FASCIST. It’s time to use it—and to reclaim the true meaning of populism, in all its humanistic glory.
This piece first appeared at Truthdig.